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Hacker in data security concept. Hacker using laptop. Hacking the Internet. Cyber attack.
Hacker in data security concept. Hacker using laptop. Hacking the Internet. Cyber attack.
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Spies and Lies: China’s Cyberespionage Is on an Unprecedented Level

Chinese cybertheft is an ever-increasing threat.

There’s “normal” nation-state spying, and then there’s the level of spying that China has engaged in for the last two decades. Using cyber espionage, aerial surveillance, and old-fashioned secret agents, the Chinese government not only conducts espionage for national security reasons, as many nations do, but also engages in intellectual property theft, duplicitous and exploitive partnerships, interference in democratic elections, engaging in international media manipulation, and undermining economic competition. Furthermore, China’s government does this through fear tactics particularly among Chinese nationals living abroad, that are contrary to the freedoms and rights guaranteed by the countries where these nationals live.

In October, leaders of the spy agencies that make up the Five-Eyes intelligence alliance — the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — met at Stanford University for a public meeting to discuss the “unprecedented threat” Chinese cybertheft presented. This was the first time all five of the leaders of the intelligence alliance have appeared together in public.

In an interview on 60 Minutes Christopher Wray (U.S.), Ken McCallum (U.K.), David Vigneault (Canada), Mike Burgess (Australia), and Andrew Hampton (New Zealand) agreed that world-changing technologies like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and quantum computing, among others, are falling into the wrong hands because they were stolen in a global espionage campaign by China. The heads of the organizations met at Stanford University near Silicon Valley, rather than Washington, DC, because technology companies are the primary target for Chinese hackers. They want to warn large companies as well as small start-ups that any of them could be the target of cyber theft.

FBI director Wray said, “There is no country that poses a broader, more comprehensive threat to our ideas, our innovation, our economic security, and ultimately our national security. We have seen efforts by the Chinese government, directly or indirectly, trying to steal intellectual property, trade secrets, personal data — all across the country.” Wray adds that the Chinese government has sanctioned the largest global hacking program ever that has managed to steal more personal and corporate data than every other nation combined.

Escalation in Spying

Beijing’s intention to surpass the U.S. and other Western countries in technological prowess through stealing began many years ago. Calder Walon, author of Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West, writes in Foreign Policy:

We are now witnessing some of the effects of a decision made years ago by China to use every means and medium of intelligence-gathering at its disposal against the West. Its strategy can be summarized in three words: collect, collect, collect. Most Westerners do not yet appreciate just how sweeping China’s intelligence onslaught directed at their countries is…

“China Has Been Waging a Decades-Long, All-Out Spy War” Calder Walton, 03/28/23

It is not that the U.S. or other countries do not engage in its espionage. Every country uses espionage to protect against threats, mitigate civilian harms, and advance human rights, but as Calder Walton points out, “China’s intelligence services operate in a fundamentally different way from those in the West — in nature, scope, and scale.”

In 2005, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s intelligence arm, declared “war” on U.S. intelligence agencies, taking advantage of America’s focus on terrorism and the Middle East. Among one of the most devastating setbacks for American intelligence was the 2010 infiltration into the CIA’s communication system. Before this, the U.S. had a strong intelligence network within China, including those with access to Communist Party elites. The MSS systematically killed at least 30 of these informants within China, crippling U.S. intelligence in the country.

The Chinese government has sanctioned not only normal nation-state espionage but intellectual property theft to destroy companies and take over the market for products or services. The FBI released a video portraying three examples of intellectual property theft from large, small, and medium-sized companies in the areas of energy (wind turbines), agriculture (biotechnology), and military applications, specifically a proprietary foam that is used in submarines to make them more buoyant and able to dive faster. The Houston company that developed the proprietary foam took forty years to perfect the process for making it.

As one of the FBI agents who worked on the cases noted in the video, the Chinese government is like a giant company posing as a country. The Chinese Communist Party can take advantage of every tool that nations possess, including espionage, the military, and whole-of-society participation, to compete with U.S. companies and private industries, which have traditional tools of business at their disposal. According to the FBI, the Chinese government has sponsored theft and sabotage of proprietary products to compete globally while private companies compete by trying to make better or needed products.

The Five-Eyes group provided guidelines to help companies protect their intellectual property, and the companies came to the meeting with ideas and solutions on how best to implement these guidelines. The guidelines include the “Five Principles of Secure Innovation” as part of the Secure Innovation campaign that helps technology startups and spinoffs to incorporate security measures as early as possible in the innovation and business startup process.

The intelligence agencies are clear that the problem is not the Chinese people or Chinese citizens living in other countries. The problem is the Chinese government and the goals of the Chinese Communist Party that seek to place China as the global leader of all the major industries by 2025 using any means necessary to do so.

Director General McCallum emphasized that if a company is operating at the cutting edge of technology, even if they are not interested in geopolitics, geopolitics will be interested in them.

In another article, we will look at specific ways that China circumvents the norms of nation-state espionage.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Spies and Lies: China’s Cyberespionage Is on an Unprecedented Level